Dark Duet, a collaborative collection of poetry from Linda D. Addison and Stephen M. Wilson, is an exquisite work of interwoven voices blending seamlessly into something greater than the whole of their already excellent parts. Creating narrative through harmony and discord, call and response spirals of imagery and prose, and poems both new and culled from other sources, Dark Duet is an extraordinary achievement.
Collaborative poetry is not, by any stretch of the imagination, new, but this is something else entirely. Dark Duet is a full orchestration produced by two highly accomplished voices moving through a symphony of words and ideas to a gradual crescendo. Indeed, musical terms may well be the best way to describe what Dark Duet actually manages, especially given the names of the sections: “Prologue,” “Bel Canto,” “Libretto,” “Aria,” and “Coda.”
The themes that underscore the text are beautifully arranged (and are discussed below without naming the poems themselves because those, too, should be experienced in the process of reading the work itself), and form a delicious symphonic framework:
Dark Duet begins almost tremulously. But this is as the first tentative notes of a complex and masterful symphony. Pianissimo flourishes and swift pieces give way to the first direct duet, which in turn leads quickly into the “Bel Canto” section. “Bel Canto,” too, is a gradual crescendo: an awakening of elements and additional instruments for Addison and Wilson to draw music from: music by turns tender and brutal. The themes in “Bel Canto” begin broad and work their way from the external to the internal, and intimate: the sublime, and sublimely dark. Want and need, both of the soul and of the flesh, come to the fore, all in call and response, giving way to direct duet, and back again. This is the framework through which the entire collection espouses itself, and it is well established by the time the “Bel Canto” section comes to its close, this section having had very few derivations into solo work that is not directly, or at least subtly, answered, or riffed on, elsewhere.
By the time we reach the “Libretto” section Dark Duet has reached a sustained pitch and a steady melody. But even in that melody there is variance; at each turn this collection refuses to be defined by one note, or even one score; each section may contain a broad focus, but within that focus the variations are manifold. “Libretto” begins with poetry focused on prose, and potential, and the inception of words and ideas, the section moving into stronger territory as the poems discuss not merely beginnings, but now middles, and both the balance and struggle of survival (and not), and endings (and not).
These themes segue well into the “Aria” section where the focus shifts toward the spoken and unspoken, the experienced and not experienced, the ephemeral and the physical. “Aria,” too, is a section of sustained notes, in this case the fullness of being, then loss, then grief, in meditations both short and long, and straight on through into prose concerning what might, or might not come after. From there we move into a focus first on the posthuman, and then to the purely ideological—the search for meaning in the absence of what we no longer have. And then, again, abruptly, a change in tone and subject gives us a sense of the cyclical nature of things, and the falseness of finality: the possibility of beginnings leading into new beginnings, and again, and so on ad infinitum.
And then we engage the “Coda,” whose single closing note is a measured tone of duality: the two voices made one. It is an affirmation of the foregoing structure: a meta-narrative discourse on the preceding symphonic excursion told in situ. And this particular orchestration’s close is immediate, and swift, leaving one slightly breathless and hungering for more.
And, in this case, there actually is more. The e-book of Dark Duet, owing to the nature of its format, was not able to support the final nine pieces whose more difficult formatting would suffer for the conversion to reflowable text which is often one of the more beneficial aspects of electronic books. Wisely, the publishers have included these nine pieces as bonus material available in .pdf format. The review copy I worked with included these directly, and the copies of the .zip file of the e-book available directly from Necon E-Books do come packaged with the bonus material. When the book is published through an external vendor the bonus material must be requested (instructions are included in a note in the text, and this is quite straightforward, being as simple as sending an e-mail request). It is a small, and entirely worthwhile price to pay for acquiring the bonus material, which is, arguably, the strongest material in the entire book as the final, or bonus, pieces of Dark Duet engage the fullest measure of the excellence Dark Duet has to impart. Potent and evocative as the earlier works are, it is the bonus material that is the headiest of the works: it is when form is least constrained, and prose at its most malleable, that Addison and Wilson shine brightest. These closing statements reach the sweeping heights both artists are capable of, and form the work’s true coda.
While I realize that poetry strikes a wide range of chords with readers, Addison and Wilson have covered both broad enough ground in terms of subject, as well as form and execution, that Dark Duet can comfortably appeal to a wide audience without losing any of its own integrity, or pandering to any one group of potential readers. And there is in Dark Duet a certain level of pleasurable discomfort that comes from intruding upon a very private conversation that will appeal to many as well. For while we are witnessing a public fugue in progress with Dark Duet, we are also watching a deeper intimacy of whispered voices and shared secrets unfold.
All tolled, Dark Duet is an ambitious gambit. One that ultimately succeeds. And for those of you who are not convinced that poetry, in and of itself, is enough to tempt you to acquire a copy of Addison and Wilson’s collaborative outing, then I suggest picking up the book for both Tom Piccirilli and Michael Arnzen’s introductions, which are in themselves more than worth the price of admission.
No matter your reasons for acquiring a copy of Dark Duet, you will not be disappointed.